Flint, MI—The Flint City Council’s investigative hearing into the city’s trash contract bid process has once again been pushed to a later date after city officials were not in attendance to be questioned.
In June, the council learned that the bid process for trash collection contracts in February and March was done incorrectly according to the city’s charter.
Administration officials told the council that the bid process occurred in a private room with only the internal purchasing staff present. Normally, in accordance with the charter, bids would be received, opened publicly, and read off in a public setting.
The council voted in June to hold an investigative hearing but has been met with multiple delays. First, the council was told they needed their own lawyer. After they did so, on June 23, the lawyer ended up backing out, saying there was a conflict of interest, and the lawyer search began again.
On Aug. 25, the council was introduced to their current attorney, F. Jack Belzer. At that time, the council submitted their subpoena requests and set a date for the investigative hearing, voting to hold the hearing before approving any new waste contract.
That didn’t happen.
The hearing was supposed to take place Sept. 7, but Attorney Melvin McWilliams, who is representing five subpoenaed people, advised his clients not to attend until the council adopted rules for the hearing.
The council agreed to rules at that meeting and moved the investigative hearing to Sept. 9, but once again, the hearing did not go as planned.
On Sept. 8, Attorney Belzer filed the case with the Genesee County Circuit Court, and requested an emergency hearing. He also asked the assigned judge, David Newblatt, various questions about how the council should go about the hearing.
A few hours before the hearing on Sept. 9, Newblatt issued an opinion saying that there was no need for an “emergency hearing” since a trash contract has already been awarded. He said the hearing could be taken to court after Sept. 20.
McWilliams and Attorney Barry Wolf, both representing the subpoenaed individuals, said that they would not be proceeding with the hearing until after Sept. 20, in accordance with Newblatt’s opinion.
“I’m kind of very disappointed in the counsel that’s representing members of the administration and the Flint city government, who is for the second time, in my opinion, blocking subpoenas and blocking witnesses and holding up the business of the city,” Councilman Eric Mays said.
Councilwoman Monica Galloway said she thought it was important to separate the new trash contract from the original incorrect bid process, which she said is what this investigative hearing is about.
After the administration told the council in June about the private bid process, the city had to enter into a contract extension for the then-current provider, Republic Services, to have time to redo the bid process while not halting trash collection. When they redid the bid process, Republic Services chose not to accept another long-term contract, and the administration ended up selecting Priority Waste, LLC for the job. The council approved the new contract on Sept. 7.
“The first thing we need to acknowledge is that the contract awarded by my colleagues is not what this investigation is about. The reason why that’s very important is because there may be some people that try to use that in an effort to eliminate this investigative hearing,” Galloway said. “This investigative hearing is into the process by which the bids were done … the bids that were opened at that time, are not the ones that were awarded a contract. That was a whole different process.”
She said it’s not right to act as though awarding a new trash contract makes an investigative hearing pointless.
Galloway also mentioned that the chosen contractor, Priority Waste, LLC, was eliminated in the first bidding process, leaving her to wonder how they became the top choice in the second bid process.
“But please, and I’ll shout to the rooftops … this is a separate issue,” Galloway said.
Mays said he sees things a little differently and hopes to get answers about why Priority Waste, with a higher bid than others and a previous elimination, was brought to the council as the administration’s choice.
“I smell a rat and I’ll tell you why I smell a rat, because now they done raised the stakes,” Mays said. “They got two lawyers that they sent here blocking conversations of people who have taken oath of office. … For two or more months, we’ve been asking to get information about this garbage contract, who the contractors were. I want to know if any of them contributed to campaigns.”
Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter said she too smelled a rat.
“I don’t understand why we can’t get the answers to our questions … this is ridiculous,” Winfrey-Carter said. “But I do want to say to the community, I want you guys to stay woke. There’s a lot of shady handling going on, and we just got to stay woke and we got to reveal some of the shadiness.”
Councilman Maurice Davis called it a sad day for the community and an “emergency-management style of government downstairs.”
“We ain’t talking about the State of Michigan trying to subpoena Rich Baird, Gov. Snyder, no one else,” Davis said. “We’re talking about downstairs in the city of Flint. The mayor and the administration.”
Belzer read off the list of five people he subpoenaed, who McWilliams and Wolf are representing: Transportation Director John Daly, the recently-hired Purchasing Manager Lauren Rowley, Director of the Department of Public Works Michael Brown, the newly appointed Chief Financial Officer Robert Widigan, and Mayor Sheldon Neeley.
Galloway requested that Belzer subpoena the former Chief Financial Officer Shelbi Frayer, and former Purchasing Manager Joyce McClane who were the ones involved in the bid process months ago.
“They’re the two top people in this process,” Galloway said.
Belzer said he had difficulty tracking them down but would get to work on that before the hearing.
The council voted to recess the investigative hearing until Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. in-person again at the council chambers.